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Mine safety competition has goal of saving lives

PIKEVILLE — The scenario in the underground mine was grim: A miner had been severely shocked while working on a pump. The voltage had knocked him unconscious. The miner, whose leg was broken and gushing blood, wasn't breathing.

As teams of rescue workers from Kentucky and three other states prepared to enter, they knew the victim was only an actor, the scenario just a practice drill, as part of a two-day mine-rescue competition in Pikeville.

Still, each team worked with a sense of urgency. Their voices rose under the stress as they discussed the best way to reach and treat the victim.

It was an exercise that many said they hoped to never face in reality. But they realize, they said, that the dangerous nature of their work makes that hope unrealistic.

“When something goes wrong underground, it's not the police and firefighters who are called — it's the rescue teams,” said Kimberly Moore, a Mine Safety and Health Administration analyst from Inez.

Moore said the teams are specially trained to navigate mines and respond to emergencies while standing in 30 inches of coal, 2 miles underground in smoky, pitch-black conditions. The miners, who volunteer to be part of the rescue teams, are trained to overcome such obstacles as unstable roofs, volatile gases and electrical dangers.

She said the two-day competition, which wraps up Thursday, is a chance for mine-rescue teams to hone those skills. Twenty-five teams from Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Illinois competed in the event, hosted by Kentucky Employers' Mutual Insurance.

Miners were tested on their ability to work through a simulated underground mine disaster, as well as their ability to give appropriate first aid to the injured and properly clean and test the breathing apparatus used during mine rescue work.

The competition was judged by officials from MSHA and the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

The winners receive trophies, but “there are no losers in this competition,” said David Wilder, 54, manager of safety for Premier Elkhorn Coal Company, which has mines in Pike and Letcher counties. “Everybody takes something home from this.”

Wilder said the scenario of the shocked miner with the bleeding, broken leg brought back thoughts of an accident in Harlan County in December 2005.

David “Bud” Morris Jr., 29, died after an overloaded coal hauler severed his leg just below the knee inside H&D Mining's No. 3 mine at Cumberland.

As the father of two lay bleeding to death beside his amputated leg, no one helped him, according to a lawsuit filed by his widow, Stella Morris.

Two of the mine's medical technicians were with him, but neither applied a tourniquet. They had not been trained in how to do that, even though amputation is a relatively common injury, the lawsuit said.

Wilder said the competitions and practice help to ensure that such tragedies don't happen again.

“That's one of the first and foremost things we learn — how to take care of a fellow miner and do the things you have to do to keep that person alive until you get out,” he said. “We hope we never need this, but the more we practice, the more we work in these conditions, the better we are able to respond.”